On choosing mixture components via non-local priors

Authors: David Rossell, and

Journal of the Royal Statistical Society: Series B (Statistical Methodology), Vol. 81, No 5, 807-938, December, 2019

Choosing the number of mixture components remains an elusive challenge. Model selection criteria can be either overly liberal or conservative and return poorly-separated components of limited practical use. We formalize non-local priors (NLPs) for mixtures and show how they lead to well-separated components with non-negligible weight, interpretable as distinct subpopulations. We also propose an estimator for posterior model probabilities under local and non-local priors, showing that Bayes factors are ratios of posterior to prior empty-cluster probabilities. The estimator is widely applicable and helps set thresholds to drop unoccupied components in overfitted mixtures. We suggest default prior parameters based on multi-modality for Normal/T mixtures and minimal informativeness for categorical outcomes. We characterise theoretically the NLP-induced sparsity, derive tractable expressions and algorithms. We fully develop Normal, Binomial and product Binomial mixtures but the theory, computation and principles hold more generally. We observed a serious lack of sensitivity of the Bayesian information criterion (BIC), insufficient parsimony of the AIC and a local prior, and a mixed behavior of the singular BIC. We also considered overfitted mixtures, their performance was competitive but depended on tuning parameters. Under our default prior elicitation NLPs offered a good compromise between sparsity and power to detect meaningfully-separated components.